There cannot be a bigger irony. As the nation was preparing to smugly display its military might and scientific prowess on Republic Day, a mighty earthquake flattened a large part of Gujarat. The quake, however, did not quite shake the ruling elite, who till afternoon participated in the long ceremonial parade, even as the death count continued to rise by the minute. A cabinet meeting was called at 5.30 pm , eight hours after the tragedy had struck. The extent and magnitude of the catastrophe had still not dawned on the powers that be. So much for a nuclear India coming to grips with a natural disaster that had struck a state that has a sizeable military presence. And this was just the beginning.
As relief started pouring in, Indian bureaucracy was in its true element: slack, corrupt and incompetent. A low-ranking babu's signature was what was needed to download relief material from a plane waiting in Ahmedabad. But the bureaucrat was sleeping in his house, with his mobile switched off. A foreign rescue team had to wait at the Delhi airport for a frustrating 48 hours before they could get an approval from the home ministry. With crucial time being wasted, the body count made this earthquake the worst since India's independence. Above 100,000 dead, according to George Fernandes, Union defence minister.
Bhuj -- which was the quake's epicentre, measuring 8.1 on the Richter scale -- resembled a town that had been bombed many times. The earthquake, which lasted for a minute, instantly turned homes to tombs in this town of 150,000 people, 90 per cent of whose houses have been reduced to rubbles. Those who survived did not know whether to thank God for being alive or cry for their near and dear ones who had perished. But for sure, they were angry. As politicians and ministers made a guided tour in the affected areas, they were in for a shock. Not because of the devastation that they were about to witness, but of the rage with which the local people received them. In many cases, top politicians had to beat a hasty retreat.
Not anywhere does the anger reveal more poignantly than on the face of Harilal Shah, a small-time trader in Bhuj, whose entire family has been wiped off. "The great scientists of India have planned on a mission to Moon. Why can't they use their expertise to protect their own people?," he asks.
As the death toll rises to such a high that even imagination forbids, lies buried in the rubbles is the people's confidence on a system that seems inert. Leaders fight over the exact number of deaths and the scientific community debates the real magnitude. The aftershocks continue to shake the region. With it, an old question finds utterance: how many disasters will it take for the government to evolve a system that can avert large-scale death and destruction?